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Afghanistan: Refugee Returns Should No Longer Be a Cause for Celebration in Kabul

Afghanistan lately boasts few reasons for optimism. But on the short list that international community representatives and Afghan government officials regularly point to as cause for optimism, one holds pride of place: the fact that 5 million refugees have returned to their homeland since 2001.

Indeed, returnee statistics headline the Government of Afghanistan's report card of achievements in its National Development Strategy adopted earlier this year.

Following the removal of the Taliban, Afghans who had sought refuge in camps in Iran and Pakistan started returning. Again and again, the government and aid groups held up this single fact as evidence of something right about the country, and justly so. Had intervention not toppled the Taliban, most of the 5 million refugees would still be languishing abroad. Though they had left Afghanistan during different periods over the past three decades, and for differing reasons, they returned united in the hope of building a stable and prosperous future.

Behind the glossy number of returnees, however, the reality has been changing for some time. Since 2005, returnees, due to a variety of factors, have felt more of a push to head home, rather than feel a pull to go back. Over the same span, the situation for returnees has become more strained, and a growing number of people must jostle for slender resources.

On November 19, a high-level conference in Kabul will take a look at some of the challenges of return and reintegration. The question is will it go far enough. Tackling some of the root problems demands an acknowledgement of political realities that the governments of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran, as well as the international community, may find too sensitive to broach.

The first challenge is acknowledging that the returning population has changed over the past two to three years, according to UNHCR's Acting Representative in Afghanistan, Ewen MacLeod. "Since 2006, the return and particularly the reintegration challenges have been more difficult mainly because the majority of those involved have now been absent from the country for more than 20 years and, indeed, half of them have been born outside Afghanistan."

For this population, as for the remaining 3 million refugees still abroad, the sense of identification with the country of refuge is likely to be stronger than the ties they have with Afghanistan.

Because of the way they have grown up, "they find themselves to be completely different," the former UNHCR Country Representative, Salvatore Lombardo, told a EurasiaNet reporter earlier this year. Many of them left as peasants, he says, but have been urbanized and would find it difficult to return to their former rural communities.

Their wishes "certainly do not find an answer in the Afghanistan of today. But one issue that is often neglected is what they have become after 30 years?" he said. "There is not enough recognition that a population that has been in exile for 30 years doesn't necessarily want to [go] back."

Lombardo expressed hope that the November conference would provide an "injection of reality," into the way the refugee situation is perceived. "How many people actually can come back to Afghanistan? We would like discussion in the conference to clarify that. I think the reality today tells you very clearly that if the conditions are what they are today that number would be [miniscule]."

But accepting that the remaining population may wish to be absorbed into the host countries is politically inexpedient. Even those living for two or three decades in Pakistan and Iran are rarely afforded the opportunity of citizenship. Moreover, the Afghan government's position is to seek the return of all the refugees, no matter how tenuous their links with home.

Under two separate trilateral agreements that the UNHCR has signed with the governments of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran, the two host countries agreed repatriation should be voluntary. That is, neither country would coerce refugees to leave. While the UNHCR has succeeded in preventing a mass forced exodus, the definition of 'voluntary' appears to be shifting.

Some are returning to Afghanistan under the pressure of worsening security and economic conditions in the host countries. In Pakistan, authorities fear the camps shelter terrorist groups.

Iran has forced back what it terms illegal emigrants, deporting 350,000 "unregistered Afghans." Some of those might be migrant workers, but many are refugees, and Iran uses the gray area to avoid its commitments. Pakistan has closed some refugee camps, leaving residents no choice but to return. Earlier this year, authorities shut the Jalozai Camp, one of the largest and oldest in Pakistan. Though the UNHCR was able to delay the closure, Pakistani authorities made their intentions clear by shutting off water and electricity to the enclave.

The second challenge facing the conference is acknowledging the state of conditions for returnees. When refugees return hoping for easier conditions in Afghanistan, they often find themselves trapped. The scarcity of land, jobs and insecurity in their homeland drives many to try to return to Pakistan or Iran. There, they become illegal migrants without the legal rights of refugees.

According to the UNHCR the bulk of the returns have been to the central and eastern region, with Kabul province alone accounting for 1.1 million, and the province of Nangarhar for 850,000, creating crowded settlements of jobless returnees.

The future is grim for Afghanistan's unwanted abroad. The government estimates between 400,000 and a million more refugees will return over the next five years. And according to its own prognosis, the outcome depends on future uncertain conditions inside Afghanistan, as well as relations with Pakistan and Iran.

With ongoing violence inside Afghanistan, internally displaced populations are again swelling. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. The UNHCR says there are currently 235,000 internally displaced persons inside the country. But even this problem is hidden to a large extent in the folds of traditional family and kinship ties. Afghanistan's population has been extremely generous in absorbing the returnees. Small rooms are packed to overflowing, sparse meals become sparser to accommodate new arrivals, and it is only the really destitute who live in camps and get counted.

The conference also is expected to look at basic aspects of successful reintegration.

According to Lombardo, the success of the refugee reintegration policy will depend on how it is woven into the overall reconstruction picture. "When you enter into the question of how do you develop a community, how do you sustain a community, how do you find an answer for the long term wishes of the population, we don't have the answers," he said.

If the conference tackles even some of these contentious issues, it will have achieved much. But this would necessitate an admission by the Afghan government, and the international community, that the returns are now a problem, rather than a source of satisfaction.

Aunohita Mojumdar is an Indian freelance journalist based in Kabul.

Afghanistan: Refugee Returns Should No Longer Be a Cause for Celebration in Kabul

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